Dolphin magic

Lynne McTaggart

Dolphins have long had a mythical status as special healers – or even originating from Atlantis, that mythical seat of power and nobility. But that idea got an unexpected boon when Dr Betsy Smith, an educational anthropologist, witnessed an improvement in the mental state of her intellectually disabled brother after he waded into the water with two young dolphins in 1971.

Neuropsychologist David Nathanson was intrigued by the story – intrigued enough to investigate whether dolphins could help disabled children to develop, both physically and mentally.

At a facility in Key Largo, Florida, he began some basic research, testing whether dolphins could help children with Down syndrome process and retain verbal information.

The dolphins were used to provide the stimuli and reinforce behavior: when a child’s response was correct, he was allowed to feed a dolphin. Nathanson discovered that the children learned four times faster with dolphins than they did in their more conventional educational settings, and retained 15 per cent more information as well.

In fact dolphin interactions elicited up to 19 times more correct speech in these children than did the usual classroom setting.

Between 1988 and 1997, Nathanson went on to treat 700 children with 35 different diagnoses, including cerebral palsy, autism, Angelman’s syndrome, and brain and spinal cord injuries.

Just two weeks of dolphin-assisted therapy—or DAT, as it is now referred to— outperformed six months of conventional speech and physical therapy—and at less cost. And a 15-point questionnaire filled in by the parents of the treated children concluded that the skills learned with DAT were maintained or even improved upon in 50 per cent of the cases a year after the treatment had ended.

Since Nathanson’s ground-breaking research, a variety of therapists have attempted to use dolphins to to treat anorexia nervosa and chronic depression, autism, post-traumatic stress disorder, dyslexia and even cancer. One research facility in the Ukraine using dolphins to assist in the therapy of 1500 patients reported a 60 per cent improvement in childhood phobias, and a 30 per cent improvement in patients with infantile cerebral palsy.

Nathanson’s initial premise was that it was simply the pleasurable experience of interacting with an animal in water that appeared to increase the children’s attention span. But David Cole, a computer scientist at Fort Myers, Florida, fascinated by the possibility that dolphins might have a profound physiological effect on humans, developed a neuromapping electroencephalography (EEG) instrument to enable his AquaThought Foundation to study the neurological effects that close contact with dolphins might have on the human brain.

The participant’s dominant brainwave frequency slowed significantly after interaction with dolphins—from a beta frequency to something resembling an alpha state, the brainwave frequency of light meditation or dreaming. The researchers also found that the brain hemispheres synchronize, so that the brainwaves emitted from both the left and right hemispheres are in phase (peaking and troughing at the same time) and of similar frequency (speed).

Studies into psychoneuroimmunology have demonstrated that alpha states strengthen the immune system—one possible reason why cancer patients swimming with dolphins report successful treatment outcomes. Other research shows that an increased number of alpha and theta waves can enhance learning.

The Florida Back Institute, studying the endocrinological effect of human–dolphin contact, found that the production and uptake of the brain’s neurotransmitters are strengthened by dolphin contact.

AquaThought has postulated that a dolphin’s acoustic emissions, or sound waves, cause chemical changes at the boundaries of cells in living tissue—what Cole terms ‘sonochemistry’—the interaction of sound with matter through the process of cavitation. “Sonochemistry . . . may explain both the chemical and electrical changes that have been observed in the brain,” says Cole. The cavitation is caused by microscopic bubbles 100 microns in diameter, formed as a result of the intense sound waves, which implode in less than a microsecond.

Thus far, we know that cavitation helps hormones to pass through cell membranes more efficiently. Furthermore, leukemia research shows that cavitation can help to disintegrate the membranes of cancerous cells, which may be another reason for the reported positive DAT effects on cancer patients.

It’s also thought to stimulate the production of immune system T cells and to release endorphins, hormones involved in coping with stress and modulating the perception of pain.

Another possibility suggested by dolphin researchers is a process called ‘resonant entrainment’, a situation that is analogous to when one tuning fork hits a pitch at which other tuning forks subsequently vibrate. We know that bottlenose dolphins produce low-frequency electromagnetic and scalar waves (or standing) waves.

For the Hello Dolphin Project in Florida, the researchers constructed special wide-band sensor and recording equipment to record all signals emanating from dolphins. They then also recorded the brainwave frequencies of the children participating in the study.

When the dolphins were present, they recorded an electrical, magnetic and acoustical extremely-low-frequency signal of about 16 Hz in nearly three-quarters of all the trials.

When the researchers then examined the brainwave recordings of the participants, they found profound brainwave shifts to a predominant frequency near 16 Hz after the interactions with the dolphins.

From the material they gathered, the researchers concluded that dolphins simultaneously emit acoustical, electrical and magnetic fields, and that dolphins sense electrical fields from humans and attempt to communicate using the same frequencies (in the human brainwave band of 6–30 Hz).

We feel better around dolphins because they act as our tuning fork – and help us back to resonating at optimum frequency.

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Lynne McTaggart

Lynne McTaggart is an award-winning journalist and the author of seven books, including the worldwide international bestsellers The Power of Eight, The Field, The Intention Experiment and The Bond, all considered seminal books of the New Science and now translated into some 30 languages.

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10 comments on “Dolphin magic”

  1. Fascinating research! Makes me want to go swim with some dolphins. Nowhere does it talk about how they asked and felt they received permission from the dolphins to be trapped and used in experiments. I feel certain that the researchers must have gone through some sort of permission asking process. It would be good to talk about that piece, otherwise, I don't feel good about using them for our benefit alone. Thanks

  2. Yes,dolphins and whales are magnificent,highly intelligent empathic beings,with perfect communication systems,absolut body mastery and joy.

    I feel there are ethical issues for humans to capture them,isolate them from their large family group ,put them in a prison like environment,condition them to do what humans expect from them.From freedom and Community they become totally dependent.
    It is as if a therapist is put in captivity and is forced to heal another species.True healing can only be accomplished in mutual agreement in natural circumstances.Dolphins belong to the freedom of the vast of the oceans.

    Seeing dolphins in a dolphinario after encountering them in the open sea caused such dismay ,that we decided to research into the effect of dolphins in their natural environment on humans.At the same time awaken awareness for respect and non abusive attitude in relationship to Cetaceans.
    The commitment of the project is for humans and dolphins.

  3. Of Dolphin and Decency

    by Ric O’Barry
    When you consider that dolphins and other whales have been around on this planet for at least 50 million years, compared with much less than a single million years for us human beings, you have to wonder how we got control so quickly over them. They have larger brains than we have. They’re bigger and stronger, faster, sleeker and altogether more perfectly formed than we are. And yet, just as we have come to dominate 30 per cent of the world (that which is above water) in the short time we’ve been around, we could say that dolphins and other whales are the dominant species in the other 70 per cent, which is water.
    The bottom line is that we’re both at the top in our separate worlds, cetaceans in their watery domain, we on land. When we scan the horizon for similarities, we have a moment of recognition because we’re actually very much alike. We’re both mammals, for instance, mammals of a high order for we’re both self-aware, and we’ve both adapted almost perfectly to the world we live in. As mammals, we both breathe air, mothers in both worlds suckle their young in loving family groups around which is woven a way of living that fosters social rules maintaining a balance like the golden mean of ancient Greece.
    At least that’s true of dolphins and other whales.
    Is this dolphin display educational?
    Where did we go wrong? What happened in our world to make so many of us rush with such abandon into the exploitation of our counterparts in the other 70 per cent of the world? Why do we capture these beautiful fellow creatures and make them objects of fun? And oddly enough the most fun we seem to have is capturing them, pinning them up and making them pull us through the water, one after the other. Why would anyone who understood what was actually going on enjoy this? How can we, who do understand what’s going on, tolerate it? And how can those who exploit dolphins and other whales do so without a ripple of conscience, as if they had a right to?
    Most countries would not permit this abuse for the real reason they exist: money. Most countries have laws against cruelty to animals, laws that began early in the 19th century. But obviously these laws have a loophole because, despite all our efforts, displaying dolphins publicly for money is now a multi-billion dollar industry. Hunters of dolphins, suppliers and shippers, marketers, park construction workers, trainers – this list goes on and on and they all cash in. Some nations allow it because they’ve got bigger problems. Some nations see nothing wrong with it. Some allow it for the wrong reason: that it’s educational. They say that many people would never get to see a dolphin except for the dolphinaria. But what about all the people who will never see a snow leopard? A sabre-toothed tiger? Or the dodo bird? Taken even at face value, their argument is a fraud, because these dolphinaria are not educational, they’re anti-educational. They show not a dolphin in his own world but a trained dolphin, a dolphin trained to act like a clown, in our world.
    It may be tempting to point out that we are not personally to blame for what is happening to dolphins and other whales. And that’s true. We don’t personally capture them and put them in what to them are tiny torture chambers, and we don’t withhold food till they perform silly little acrobatic tricks to our liking. We’re not to blame, not a single one of us, in the same way we’re not to blame for the world’s murders, arsons, kidnappings and so on. We’re not to blame because (1) we don’t personally do these things and (2) we’ve helped pass laws against them, laws with good stiff penalties that express our desire to make the world free from such abuse. We pass laws against murder, kidnapping and all the rest not because of some abstraction about society or the rule of law, but because we’re sick of it. We’ve had enough. Just like now we’re revolted by those who capture dolphins in the wild and imprison them for the rest of their lives.
    If words alone, if logic, reason, facts and history were enough to destroy the dolphin industry that has warped our lives, they would be long gone now. We need more than words; we need laws to stop them. We know that it cannot be done overnight. It may take many years. We may even have to compromise a little. But now is the time to start eliminating this evil or it will never happen in our lifetime.

  4. Thank you Ric O' Barry for your thoughtful comment. I hope all reading the blog, especially the author, will gain new heartfelt insights into the plight of the dolphins and the misguided therapies of Dolphin Assisted Therapy.

  5. Regarding the comment from Ms. Hagen “I feel certain that the researchers must have gone through some sort of permission asking process. It would be good to talk about that piece, otherwise, I don't feel good about using them for our benefit alone. Thanks.”
    Unfortunately, Dolphin Assisted Therapy (DAT) program centers do not ask permission of the dolphins. They are held in cruel captivity against their will. Everyone could learn more by reading this excellent article by Lori Marino PhD, a neuroscientist and animal advocate. “Dolphins are not healers; Dolphins are smart, sociable predators. They don’t belong in captivity and they shouldn’t be used to ‘cure’ the ill” From Dr. Marino’s article . . . “DAT took off in earnest when Lilly’s early explorations became better known through the efforts of the educational anthropologist Betsy Smith, then at Florida International University. In 1971, Smith let her mentally disabled brother wade into the water with two adolescent dolphins. She noted that the dolphins treated him tenderly: she believed that they knew her brother was disabled and were attempting to soothe him. Soon after, Smith established therapy programmes at two facilities in Florida, and offered them free of charge for many years. But she later concluded that DAT programmes were ineffective and exploitative of both the dolphins and the human patients, and in 2003 she publicly denounced them, calling them ‘cynical and deceptive’.” . . . Go to the link above for the full well written article that shows just how exploitative DAT is. There are good therapies out there for kids and adults, but the dolphins should be free in their ocean homes.

  6. Dolphin or Human “Assisted” Therapy?

    The writer didn’t address the issue of exploiting dolphins for captivity and experiments just the controversial issue of their role in therapy. Most are taken from the wild and are unwilling participants. People have also been injured when swimming with dolphins.

    It is highly questionable if the dolphins play a significant role especially when there are no controls for comparison (similar treatments without dolphins).The therapists are the key. They give the children companionship and, most importantly, the attention.

    Childrens’ chaotic lives must be changed with rational approaches and bonding with fellow humans not wildlife. It is then that the anxiety and other associated problems can be reduced. Parents and children may well benefit from changing the ways they react to and treat each other. Then children and animals will not be exploited under the “pet therapy” scams.

  7. Hey, you used to write excellent, but the last several posts have been kinda boring?K I miss your super writings. Past few posts are just a little out of track! come on!

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